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Robin Williams once joked of the 1981 live action Popeye movie – in which he played the title role – “if you watch it backwards, it has a plot.” In Memento, you could make a similar argument for pushing play at any given point in the film’s runtime. The movie doesn’t so much start at the end and work backwards as show seemingly random flashes of the end, the beginning and the middle of the narrative, forcing the viewer to piece together the chronology more or less on their own.
Director Christopher Nolan has become known for this kind of high concept fare thanks to subsequent hits like Inception and Interstellar, but seventeen years on, Memento may still be his most challenging movie to date. The near-impossibility of talking about his films without giving away key plot points probably explains why they make so much money. If you’ve ever been sold on a Nolan movie by a friend, they’ve probably told you something along the lines of “don’t read about it, just watch it”.
To his fans, he’s one of the smartest and most enigmatic mainstream filmmakers currently working – an heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. To his detractors, he’s all plot engineering and no soul, his movies populated by blank, one-note ciphers. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby is almost literally this; his inability to form new memories rendering him vague and single minded. His desire for revenge is his sole motivation. When he is confronted with an apparent opportunity to break the cycle at the end of the movie, he appears to reject it, retreating back into his cycle of working through his grief and disorientation through perpetual detective work.
That said, the script – and Guy Pearce’s bone dry, almost deadpan performance – does leave room for some humour. The supporting characters in the movie may be thinly drawn, but the performances are rich enough to make them memorable. In addition to Pearce, Carrie Anne-Moss does excellent work delivering a modern take on the femme fatale as the morally ambiguous Natalie, while a perfectly cast Joe Pantoliano gives colour and magnetism to his exposition spouting cop.
Given that his movies do rely so heavily on the element of mystery, it’s little surprise that outside of the Batman franchise, Nolan doesn’t really do sequels. Leonard isn’t so much a real person as a concept, and if you were to revisit him seventeen years later, what would his life be? Would he still be acting out the same cycle of investigation and revenge? If not, who would he be and what stories would there be to tell about him? We aimed to find out…
Harry’s Pitch | Memento: Mirrors
John’s Pitch | Memento 2: Back to the Future
Our Memento episode is available through iTunes, Stitcher, aCast and various other podcast hosting channels, so give us a listen and let us know what you’d do with a sequel, prequel, remake or reboot of the cult classic. You can leave a comment below, or contact us on Facebook and Twitter. As ever, the best ideas will get a shout-out on a future episode.